African Beginnings

On a soft August evening in 1935 two lovers moved indolently arm-in-arm along the thronged Calle Alameda in Málaga.  As was the Spanish custom, they had finished a light meal of ten-o’clock tapas and local wine in a small restaurant where they often ate.  Now they were headed away from the center of town, past the botanical gardens that perfumed the Andaluz night with a myriad minglings of aromas wafting from flowers in full bloom, and slowly made their way up into the hills girding the city and looking down out over the sea.  They came upon an orange-grove, heavy with the citrine scents of fruit on the vine, and, after the man had gently spread a blanket on the loamy soil of the orchard, they sat down and hugged each other.  Below them spread out the shimmering lights of the city and, beyond, the darkness of the primordial Mediterranean.  They were both fluent in Spanish but whispered softly to each other with different tongues, she in Swedish, he in Norwegian, and, in tender agreement, with the hasty passion of youth in love, came together on this hillside of ancient Andalucía.

These young lovers were my father and my mother.

And while they were preoccupied with love, Europe was preoccupied with war.

Franco had had enough of indigenous Communists and foreign fellow-travelers who flowed in an unending stream into Spain from the rest of Europe, from Russia, from Canada, from America.  Some were true believers, others were out for adventure.  Idealists like George Orwell would speak for an entire generation in his vivid dispatches from the front and the famous Homage to Catalonia he later published;  he witnessed some of the things that citizens could do to each other as civil war began to play itself out in earnestness and an unspeakable chaos spread across the Iberian peninsula.  Death marched in jackboots with its own unstoppable momentum in Spain, and in my mother’s womb I slowly came to life.

The Republican and Nationalist handwriting on the bleeding walls of Spain that my father had been reading with ominous and waxing concern was translated into riots, violent strikes, and the generalized street thuggery of the Spanish general elections of February 1936 that empowered a leftist Front to head up the government.  Getting a head-start on the plan my father would soon put in motion, on 16 April he had moved the two of them west along the coast to Algeciras, just southwest of Gibraltar.  Shortly thereupon, a few days after marrying my mother, he wisely embarked with his very pregnant bride due south across the Straits of Gibraltar to Africa in late April of 1936.  (This pattern of flight just before disaster was to repeat itself three years later on the eve of World War II when, now with my younger brother along for the fun, the family escaped from Norway for Sweden some few hours before the Nazi liberators closed the border.)  As my father had foreseen, just a few months after my parents had made it to Tangier, on 18 July Franco began his uprising in Spanish Morocco, and the horrendous three-year Civil War was officially launched.  Fortunately by that time we had already sailed for Norway, on 22 June on the Pacific & Orient Line’s S.S. Mongolia, thus ending my abbreviated 33-day stay in Africa until I visited the cacophonous city of my birth again in the summer of 1961.

We arrived in Norway a week later, on 29 June, and took up residence in Fredrikstad, a smallish town founded in 1567 by Frederick II and located southeast of Oslo.  We were, at least for the time being, safe and secure from all worldly chance and mishap.  There was much shuttling between my mother’s family in Sweden and my father’s in Norway.  His father owned and ran a large metal works, Fredrikstad Jern og Metalindustri A/S (still in Fredrikstad but now owned by a Swiss conglomerate), and my mother’s father was a retired physician then living in a little town called Malmköping where he had been the district doctor (provinsialläkaren).

But back in Africa, in the interim, on 19 May, I had come squealing and squalling in vociferous protest into an uncertain world seemingly under relentless inundation from the inexorable tide of fascism:  Tojo’s kempetai in Manchukuo (Manchuria) in late 1931, Hitler’s blackshirts in Sudetenland in late 1938, Franco’s falangists in Madrid in March of 1939.  My mother, attended by an Arab doctor named Nahon, who had his offices in the American Cinema Building in Tangier and his medical degree from Johns Hopkins University, gave birth to me at 8:45 in the morning in an upstairs apartment they had secured in Rue Bouselham, a squalid backwater of what was then referred to as the native quarters.  My energetic maternal grandmother (who would prove so instrumental in my life as a child), having planed, trained and boated night and day from Stockholm through an increasingly unstable Europe to Tangier, arrived at 8:00, less than an hour before I did.

As soon as I was born my father (so he told me years later) hastened his way down to the American Consulate to register me as an American Citizen.  Although he had lived most of his life up to that time in Europe, he was born in Brooklyn and lived during childhood in Brooklyn and White Plains, New York, while his father (mentioned above in connection with Fredrikstad Jern og Metalindustri A/S), a Norwegian design engineer, worked on the Hudson Tunnel.  In this  way my father, who left America at around the age of seven or eight, was always an American citizen and, increasingly so, felt his greatest loyalty lay with the United States, to which he had returned permanently in 1940 (but more of that later).  In consequence of his quick-witted decision to make me an American from birth, incongruously I never set foot in my “native” country of America until I was nine years old, and I never spoke a word of English until after I had alighted from a tumultuous six-day ocean crossing from Göteborg (Gothenburg) to New York and an eighteen-hour flight via a (now classic) American Airlines DC-3 from New York to San Diego in August of 1945.

Today American citizens are allowed to hold dual citizenship and dual passports, but this opportunity was not open to my generation.  In the early nineties, after this sensible law was amended to allow for such status, my brother, like me a life-long American citizen, did however late in life apply for and receive Swedish citizenship. On retiring he had moved back to Sweden, bought property there, and settled down.  Furthermore, although he and I had lived about the same amount of time in Sweden, his option was not available to me:  unlike him, I was not born in Sweden but, of course, in Africa.

Learning what my brother had done, I thought a couple of times about investigating Morocco’s stand on granting citizenship to anyone who had been born in the country, but the project never got beyond the stage of mental game-playing.  Why would I want to become a citizen of Morocco?  So I could travel on Moroccan documentation throughout the Arab and Islamic world without any local antipathy attaching to me for having an American passport (which I would, I assume, keep carefully out of sight!)?  And the first time a bored customs inspector in some dusty clime addressed a fellow traveler like me in Arabic?  What suspicions would my incomprehension arouse, not to mention my secreted American passport whose location electric prods to unmentionable parts would shortly thereafter have encouraged me swiftly to reveal?  Besides, I can’t think of a single Islamic or Arabic country I am even modestly interested in visiting – with the possible exception of Dubai and Indonesia, and they aren’t that harsh on Americans, are they?  The whole issue was, then, quiet moot.

Another thing my father did within days if not hours of my birth was to purchase me a teddy bear, the kind modeled on Winnie the Pooh that was all the rage then.  This animal stayed with me for many years and through many ‘repairs’ and restitchings and wardrobes;  he traveled to America with me where, after I went off to boarding school, I sort of lost track of him.  His name was a generic Nalle Pooh, or just Nalle (interestingly, this is currently the way Swedes refer to their cell phones, perhaps because they nuzzle them close the way children used to let their Nalle cling to them).

Over the years my mother and grandmother both recounted for me on several occasions that my mother’s milk and I did not agree.  I had trouble eating, or keeping things down, and my health was precarious on this culinary account.  The matter improved only modestly after I began sucking on a bottle on 16 June.  Now, were I writing a novel, or, more precisely, a literary analysis of the symbolism in said novel, I would have to linger over those sentences.

Hmmm.

Trouble eating!

Sucking on a bottle!

Here, then, perhaps the inchoate origins of the protagonist’s often troubling companionship with his two faithful Horsemen of the Apocalypse: alcohol and food.  But even though I am not writing a novel, I will pick up on these twin themes and explore them at a later time.  This is not the place.

But before I leave Africa and move on to Europe, indulge me in a paragraph or two of psychological speculation.

First, should I attach any significance to the all but belated advent of my grandmother?  As will become clear (and noted above) in the section where I lay out my years of growing up in Sweden, she was an extremely formative influence on me, certainly more than I recognized at the time and until quite recently have not come fully to appreciate.  In some sense she was more instrumental than my mother in bringing me up, and she – with her husband — certainly stands out in my mind as the most powerful adult presence in my life from about the age of five or six until nine.  I’m thinking that maybe her very timely arrival in Africa was a shadowy harbinger of things to be in Sweden.

A final point attaches to what I think of as the “three escapes:”  in utero from Spain, in cunabulis from Africa, in haste from Norway (shortly to be taken up in another post).  Each time I (and my parents) were fleeing fascism, and we very thankfully got away in time.  Given what happened in fascist Europe in the first half of the forties, one can only be humbly grateful not to have been caught up in the many horrors that so many were forced to experience through absolutely no fault of their own.  Did these withdrawals somehow instill in me a deep-seated sense of alienation and estrangement?  To this day I wonder about that.  All my life I have felt I did not really belong wherever it was that I found myself.  Though not consciously aware of this sensation, in Africa I was nonetheless a temporary interloper.  In Norway Hitler’s jackboots made everybody feel out of place.  From about age five and six, when I began school, in Sweden I have clear recollections of feeling dislocated and not fitting in.  And in August 1945, the ink hardly dry on the peace treaties ending World War II, the move to America at age nine, the return to Sweden in early 1948, the trip back to the United States a year later, and further trips back and forth well into my twenties – these moves deepened in me a powerful mood of deracination:  did I belong in America, or was it in Sweden?  though formally an American citizen, was I more Swedish or more American?  was English or Swedish (or, strictly speaking, Norwegian) my native tongue?  Today the two cultures may give the misleading impression of being virtually identical, with Sweden the preferable society – at least so have proclaimed to me many mindless monoglot academics over the years who “really got to know” the country during two-week government-‘sponsored’ visits to various Swedish universities and social agencies.  This putative sameness is certainly not true today, and by orders of magnitude this was even less so the case sixty years ago.

It wasn’t until I hit my early twenties that I came to the wobbly conclusion that I was American, certainly more so than Swedish.  But that early sense of rift has never fully gone away:  even when I was chair of my department at the University, I frequently had a percipient sense that I somehow did not fit into the department and that far from being ‘mine’, it more obviously belonged to the other faculty, the vast majority of whom had arrived on the scene as much as twenty years after I did.  Other areas of my life have been similarly affected, especially involving relationships with both men and women – but those issues are to be postponed for subsequent discussion.

Probably allied to this life-long and persistent leit-motif that, notionally, I was an anchorless vessel adrift on unmapped seas in search of some final harbor to berth me in place is a free-floating anxiety that I am going to lose something, that something is going to be taken away from me, and that I have no idea where or how this loss will originate.  Hence I am defenseless and incapable of mounting any counter-assault.  As in an Aeschylean tragedy, a someone or something from a vengeful past will in some way find a path to my unlocked door and come calling – it is not a matter of if but only of when:

Perhaps the sensations and notions I have mentioned here are common human property, and there is nothing special about me or my experiences.

Perhaps.

But I thought it was time to start before the beginning of beginnings.

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One Response to African Beginnings

  1. I really enjoy reading this particular story.

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